Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Newport Citizens Advice Bureau (OP 02)


  Newport Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) is located in the Gwent borders area which operates a call centre version of the ONE pilot. The ONE scheme presented a significant opportunity to streamline and improve access to social security benefits to a great many disadvantaged people. This report details some of the experience of the bureau in advising and assisting clients claiming benefit through the ONE system.

  The problems experienced include:

    —  Delay in both lodging and processing claims;

    —  Incorrect and/or incomplete advice provided by ONE advisers;

    —  Inadequate records of ONE adviser interviews;

    —  Ineffective complaints handling;

    —  Difficulties in accessing service.

  Throughout the report, examples of client's experiences are provided to illustrate the effect these areas have had on individuals. The report acknowledges some of the benefits of establishing claims through a telephone call centre but concludes that not all of the potential of the ONE system has been realised


  1.1  The aim of the ONE pilot was to provide a work-focussed gateway for claimants of working age. This means that personal advisers discuss possibilities for work with individual claimants. Participation in the scheme is now compulsory in the pilot areas. The result of this is that all claimants of working age must make their claims for a wide range of benefits through ONE. In Newport, a call centre scheme is in operation. The facts that such a wide range of benefits are included and that participation is compulsory place significant responsibilities on those operating the scheme. These are not just responsibilities for identifying work opportunities but also to clearly and correctly advise on the whole range of benefit entitlement and facilitate a simple and efficient claim process. This is an opportunity to ensure that those individuals who are incapable of working and who are often among the most disadvantaged people in the community are enabled to easily access the full range of social security benefits to which they are entitled.

  1.2  Newport CAB has a number of areas of concern regarding the ONE pilot scheme as operated in the Gwent borders area. Numerous clients, for a variety of reasons, have experienced difficulties in accessing the benefits to which they were entitled. Our concerns have been grouped into problems of delay, quality of advice, accountability and access. This report presents an analysis of the main problems illustrated by a number of examples taken from the experiences of clients of Newport CAB.


  2.1  Delay in lodging claims: Claims are lodged through an initial contact with the call centre at which point an appointment is made for a more detailed telephone interview with a personal adviser. The personal adviser will call the claimant at a prearranged time and venue, either at the claimants home or at another location where there is a dedicated telephone, e.g. a local housing office. The call back is typically several days later and the claim cannot therefore be made whilst a CAB adviser is present. At busy times, clients and advisers have reported difficulties in getting through to the call centre or being held in a queue. The calls, if made from a private telephone or payphone, are not free and clients understandably object to the cost and inconvenience. If a client is unable to immediately contact the call centre, the result may be a delay in the start date of their claim and lost benefit.

  2.2  Delay in processing claims: The bureau, at the outset of the pilot, received reports from clients of delay in processing of claims and initial payment of benefit. The frequency of such complaints has decreased with time, although it is not clear whether this is due to improvements in processing times or to a lowering of expectations. There are still concerns about delay in the processing of Housing Benefit claims. Although such delays are common with Housing Benefit regardless of whether the authority is in a ONE pilot area, bureau advisers have been informed by Housing Benefit staff that the ONE system is contributing to the problems experienced because of delays in passing on the appropriate claim information.


  3.1  There are a number of issues relating to quality of advice. These fall into the categories of appropriateness, accuracy and completeness of advice given. There appear to be significant staff training needs and it may be the case that staff are not sufficiently experienced in the full range of benefits. The role of the ONE adviser needs to be clarified in order to establish the extent of their responsibilities in maximising income of their clients.

3.2  Appropriateness of advice:

  3.2.1  On a number of occasions, clients have reported concerns about their treatment by ONE advisers and the inappropriateness of comments made.

  3.2.2  A client contacted ONE in order to claim Income Support. The ONE adviser calculated that although he was entitled to Income Support, the amount was less than £2 per week. The adviser discouraged the client from applying by stating "it is hardly worth it for such a small amount".

  3.2.3  In a separate case (outlined further in para. 3.4.1), the bureau had assisted the client with her application but the ONE adviser actually destroyed the client's application form during a face-to-face interview and told the client that the CAB advice was "a load of rubbish". The bureau made a formal complaint.

  3.3  Accuracy of advice: The bureau has received reports from clients of incorrect information being provided. This has a range of potential consequences:

  3.3.1  One client was incorrectly advised by a personal adviser that he was entitled to a free TV licence because he was sick. Had the client relied on this information he may have risked prosecution.

  3.3.2  A separate client contacted ONE to claim Incapacity Benefit. The client had recently been receiving Incapacity Benefit but it had been withdrawn after failing a personal capability assessment. The client wished to reapply as their condition had worsened. The ONE adviser informed the client that they could not reapply with the same medical condition and would not accept a claim. This was incorrect as a deterioration in an existing condition is a relevant change of circumstances and a further claim may have been successful. In any case, it is not the part of an adviser's role to decide whether a claim is valid. That is the role of a decision maker. In this case there was an eight week time limit in which the client had to claim in order to meet the contribution conditions. Had the client not taken further advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau, they may have lost benefit for several years or more.

  3.4  Completeness of advice: Although clients may not be immediately entitled to certain benefits, it is often the case that they would become entitled with the passing of time or that there may be a course of action they can take which will trigger entitlement. For example, claiming Invalid Care Allowance, even though it may not be payable due to overlapping benefit rules, can trigger entitlement to Income Support. It is our submission that there is a duty to provide complete information to claimants regarding not only current but also potential entitlement. This does not currently happen:

  3.4.1  In one case, a client attempted to make a claim for contribution-based Jobseekers Allowance. The claim was unlikely to be successful due to contribution conditions and the operation of linking rules. The ONE adviser did not advise on the linking rules and how a successful claim could be made. On pursuing this matter, the bureau was informed by ONE implementation team staff and supervisory staff that the adviser was correct not to advise on matters such as linking rules. The bureau requested confirmation of this policy position in writing but this has not been received.

  3.4.2  In a separate case, a client contacted ONE in order to make a claim for Incapacity Benefit. Although the client was not, at that point in time, entitled to Income Support, it was clear from his circumstances that he would become entitled in six months time as an additional premium would then become payable. No advice was given at the time of the claim.

  3.4.3  In the case detailed at para 3.2.2, in discouraging the client from applying for Income Support, the adviser had overlooked the issue of passported benefits. Even a small amount of Income Support would enable the client to have access to Community Care Grants and Budgeting loans, full council tax and Housing Benefit, automatic exemption from prescription charges, court fees etc.


  4.1  There are also problems with responses to complaints and inadequate record keeping which have a serious impact on the accountability of the ONE service and the ability of claimants to obtain appropriate redress when things go wrong.

  4.2  Lack of records: No detailed records appear to be kept of personal adviser interviews. Given that these interviews are usually conducted by telephone, cover a range of benefits, and are the point at which a great deal of information is disclosed about client's individual circumstances, we are concerned that there are not more detailed records. The difficulties this can cause are illustrated in the following case.

  4.2.1  A client contacted ONE and was incorrectly advised that he was not entitled to benefit. On a subsequent visit to the bureau, entitlement to Income Support was identified and ONE was contacted again. The bureau were informed that no records were kept which could establish whether or not the clients entitlement to Income Support was discussed and whether the client was asked whether he wished to make a claim. The bureau was asked to accept reassurances that the matter was dealt with by an experienced member of staff and that it was "highly unlikely that the customer was not given the option to claim Income Support" yet it was acknowledged in correspondence that the member of staff's recollection was "extremely vague". A copy of the correspondence in this case, with personal details removed, is appended to this submission[1].

  4.2.2  The examples of inaccurate advice given in paragraph 3.3 are also relevant, as the absence of clear records of the advice given during personal adviser interviews may prevent the clients from obtaining appropriate compensation or backdating where they may have suffered loss as a result.

  4.3  Inevitably, the lack of precise records of ONE personal adviser interviews means that some of the examples given are anecdotal in nature as the bureau has been unable to verify details, despite attempts to do so. Much of the evidence referred to has also been passed to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and may be referred to separately in their submissions to this committee.

  4.4  Lack of reply to formal complaints: The bureau has commenced a number of complaints in relation to some of the cases outlined. Responses to complaints have been slow and in some cases, no reply has been provided.


  5.1  There are some problems inherent in call centre services. A call centre system can operate as a deterrent to claimants whose first language is not English or Welsh unless provision of other language facilities is comprehensive and the methods of accessing such provision are clearly communicated. The bureau was approached by some clients who were reluctant to contact the ONE call centre directly because of such language difficulties. Although it is possible to use interpretation facilities for personal adviser interviews, this can involve a three-way telephone conversation making it less likely that all relevant information will be elicited.

  5.2  A call centre system causes difficulties for those with limited access to a telephone. Many of the bureau's clients do not have a telephone service at home. Clients in this position then need to use a public telephone or use one of the dedicated telephones in a local office. They must then be sure of being able to access a telephone again at the time when the call is returned. This raises questions about privacy and may cause particular difficulties when it is necessary to use a public telephone.

  5.3  The system of calling back further disadvantages clients who may have difficulty in expressing themselves effectively. Clients require the service of organisations such as Citizens Advice Bureaux for advice on how forms should be completed. They are often unsure of their entitlements, or reluctant to apply or unclear on what the relevant information might be in determining a claim. Clients are unlikely to be with an independent adviser when the ONE call centre calls them back. This places greater responsibilities on the ONE adviser for providing accurate, complete and appropriate advice and requires that adviser to be pro-active in identifying entitlement and encouraging applications. The experiences outlined indicate that this is not happening.

  5.4  There are also benefits from the call centre system. Bureau advisers were able to commence client's claims by making initial contact with ONE and the claim would commence from that point even if the client did not have all of the relevant information to hand. The conventional system for claiming requires a claim form to be completed and submitted before a claim can commence which can cause delay and lost benefit. There are advantages too for those who have difficulties in physically accessing benefit offices due to illness, disabilities or caring responsibilities. The fact that they can commence a claim from home or a nearby telephone is an obvious advantage to the scheme.


  6.1  In addition to focussing attention on work possibilities, the ONE scheme was a useful opportunity for streamlining and improving access to benefits. However, the experience of Newport CAB shows that ONE has not succeeded in enabling clients claim the benefits to which they were entitled.

  6.2  The clients in our examples were often clients who were suffering long-term illness or who had caring responsibilities. Improved and more efficient access to benefits is of crucial importance to individuals in these circumstances.

  6.3  There were frequent problems in making claims due to delays or difficulties in contacting the call centre. Once contact was achieved, clients' experience ranged from being discouraged from making applications to being advised incorrectly or incompletely. The extent of the role of ONE advisers in ensuring clients received the full range of their entitlements was not always clear. The problems were also exacerbated by the lack of adequate records.

  6.4  Clients experienced problems in accessing the ONE service. There are both benefits and drawbacks to a call centre system. It can enable quicker access for many yet cause problems for those who have difficulty in communicating or expressing themselves by telephone. These issues are often inherent in call centre services and careful attention is needed in deciding the method of provision of future services. The call centre model was one version of the ONE pilot. There was a separate version involving call offices. Either version when operated in isolation can cause difficulties for access. An obvious solution would be to have a combination of the two, thus allowing the best possible access for both those who have difficulty with mobility or physically accessing call offices and for those who have difficulties in communicating by telephone.

  6.5  We understand that the examples we have provided here may represent a tiny proportion of claims handled through the Gwent borders call centre and appreciate that there are likely to be a great many people who have received a good service and been able to access the full range of benefits to which they were entitled. However, our examples do illustrate that there are significant flaws in the system which are of particular concern when combined with poor record keeping and failure of the complaints process. If these issues were adequately addressed, this could improve the effectiveness of the service significantly and enable a great many people to realise their benefit entitlements promptly.

Craig Lane

17 September 2001

1   Not printed. Placed in Lords Library. Back

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